Ethics panel raps 2 lawmakers, clears 2 others

AP News
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Posted: Dec 11, 2014 4:47 PM
Ethics panel raps 2 lawmakers, clears 2 others

WASHINGTON (AP) — The House Ethics Committee issued letters of disapproval Thursday to two members of Congress for ethics violations and announced it is taking no further action in two other cases in which it essentially cleared lawmakers accused of wrongdoing.

In the most serious case, the ethics panel said there is no sufficient proof that Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., sexually harassed a former aide. The panel said it would take no further action in the case.

In a flurry of activity as Congress prepares to adjourn, the ethics panel issued letters of disapproval to Reps. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., and said it will take no further action against Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis.

Petri and Gingrey are retiring, while Chu and Hastings were re-elected last month to new two-year terms.

A former aide sued Hastings in 2011, claiming he touched her, made unwanted sexual advances and threatened her job when she refused him. Hastings has called the allegations "ludicrous."

The former aide, Winsome Packer, worked as a staffer for the Helsinki Commission, which advises on U.S. policy about security, human rights and other issues involving Europe. Hastings chaired the panel and traveled with Packer to Vienna and other foreign cities between 2008 and 2010.

The ethics panel said it found there was not "substantial reason to believe" the allegations, adding that there was a "significant amount of evidence" that cast doubt on the allegations.

Even so, the panel said Hastings had acted in a way that was "less than professional" but did not constitute harassment.

In Chu's case, the panel found that she impeded its investigation into claims that her congressional staff conducted political work while on official duty. Chu has expressed regret for her inappropriate communications with two staff members, the panel said, but a public letter of disapproval was appropriate.

The panel issued a similar letter to Gingrey, following allegations that he acted inappropriately in setting up meetings involving members of Congress and a Georgia bank where he served on the board of directors. Gingrey's actions "did not reflect creditably on the House or comport with the spirit" of House rules regarding conflicts of interest, the ethics panel wrote.

Finally, the ethics panel essentially cleared Petri of wrongdoing when he acted on behalf of two companies in which he owned significant amounts of stock. Petri repeatedly sought advice from Ethics Committee staff and appears to have substantially complied with that advice, the panel said.

The committee said it would be unfair to subject Petri's conduct to additional review, just weeks before his retirement. Petri, who served 18 terms in the House, had pushed for a final ruling before he left office. A congressional review panel said in September there was substantial reason to believe Petri violated House rules by acting on behalf of the companies.

In a statement Thursday, Petri said the Ethics Committee's report "confirms what I have said all along: I regularly consulted with the committee to ensure everything was done in accordance with House rules."

Petri said he was glad the panel was able to address "and ultimately reject the misconceptions and inaccurate allegations that were published this year."